February 15, 2023

How can specialty coffee push for a circular economy model?


In many industries around the world, sustainability continues to be a pressing issue – and the coffee sector is no exception. 

Coffee professionals and consumers alike are increasingly focusing on ways to improve their social and environmental impact. This ranges from using more sustainable processing methods on farms to using recyclable and compostable packaging

A large part of this revolves around the concept of a circular economy. Essentially, this model encourages the continued use of resources for as long as possible, with the goal of reducing waste production.

When carried out effectively, a circular economy minimises environmental impact. With concerns about the future of the coffee industry growing, implementing more sustainable business practices has never been so important.

To find out more about a circular economy model in coffee, I spoke with Mark Zhou, founder of sustainable packaging company MTPak Coffee. Read on to find out what he had to say.

You may also like our article on how sustainable coffee packaging is.

A recyclable takeaway cup, which is part of a coffee circular economy model.

What is a circular economy?

The practice of reusing and recycling materials has been implemented for centuries by many communities around the world. However, it was only until recently that the term “circular economy” was officially defined.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation is widely accredited to establishing a more formal definition of the model. According to the foundation, the circular economy model is based on three principles:

  • Eliminate waste and pollution
  • Circulate products and materials (at their highest value)
  • Regenerate nature

Essentially, the model aims to move away from a linear “take-make-waste” system by encouraging the reusing and recycling of materials. In turn, this can prolong the lifespan of materials, rather than disposing of them after minimal use. 

When carried out properly in the long term, this can reduce waste and create a more mindful approach to consumption.

In recent years, sustainability has become an increasingly important purchasing factor for consumers. According to Nielsen’s Trend Watch 2023: Sustainability report, 46% of consumers expect brands to take the first step in creating sustainable change. Moreover, a growing number of consumers want to see evidence of real, impactful progress in reducing environmental footprint.

The same goes for consumers in the coffee industry. Whether it’s wanting to know more about where their coffee comes from or demanding more recyclable, biodegradable, and compostable packaging, consumers expect coffee companies to be implementing more sustainable business practices.

A recyclable coffee bag which helps to contribute to a circular economy.

How can coffee businesses contribute to a circular economy?

Some coffee shops and roasters have already been operating in a circular economy for decades. For example, reusing and recycling coffee grounds into biofuel, compost, or fertiliser is already a popular way of minimising waste production.

This is especially important when you consider that 300g of brewed coffee results in around 18g of used coffee grounds. And with 10.88 million 60kg bags of coffee exported in December 2022, reducing waste becomes a key discussion.

Mark explains that a circular economy in coffee often begins at farm level. He says that recently, producers have started looking for more ways to reuse and reduce the byproducts of growing coffee. This can include wastewater (used for processing) and coffee husk.

In some cases, these byproducts act as compost or fertilisers, while other producers create products, such as cascara tea or coffee leaf tea, to diversify their income.

“Environmental sustainability is important to consumers across the board, not just in coffee,” Mark explains. “However, as one of the commodities which is most at risk of extinction due to climate change, coffee tends to receive more attention than others.”

Why should roasters and coffee shops be more sustainable?

According to the International Coffee Organisation, the world consumed more than 170 million 60kg bags of coffee in 2022. Arabica makes up the majority of the market share, and while it is higher in quality, this coffee species isn’t particularly resilient to the effects of climate change.

This is especially concerning given recent research into how climate change will impact coffee production. The 2022 Expected global suitability of coffee, cashew and avocado due to climate change study found that by 2050, the top five coffee-producing countries in the world will experience a decrease in both the size and suitability of their arabica-growing land.

“Naturally, people have very real concerns that one day their favourite drink will no longer be available – or, at the least, it will become increasingly difficult to buy,” Mark tells me.

“Therefore, it is in their best interest to choose companies that share their concerns and are making concerted efforts to not only reduce their environmental impact, but to also create a more sustainable future.”

Mark adds that he is seeing more and more roasters and coffee shops adopt increasingly innovative ways to reduce their carbon footprint – and thereby promote a circular economy.

He tells me about a Scottish roaster who uses MTPak Coffee’s sustainable packaging. The company powers all of its equipment – including the roaster – using solar energy. On top of this, the roaster also delivers its products using an electric vehicle – making it the first carbon neutral coffee roaster in the country.

“Another of our clients in the US delivers its coffee by bike to all customers within ten miles of the roastery,” Mark adds. “If every roaster took a similar approach, we would see far fewer emissions in the coffee industry.”

The Circular Economy Grant

Inspired by the work already being done to create a more sustainable coffee industry, MTPak Coffee is proud to announce its Circular Economy Grant.

“The purpose of the MTPak Coffee Circular Economy Grant is to bring attention to our mission and encourage others to join our journey to creating a more sustainable coffee supply chain,” Mark says.

The scheme recognises and rewards small, independent roasters and coffee shops who are using their business to drive sustainability in the specialty coffee sector.

“In other words, it’s for companies who reject a ‘take-make-waste’ approach and strive to keep products and materials in use or as long as possible to obtain their maximum value,” he explains.

“The grant is intended to reward those who are working towards the same goal as us – to create a more sustainable coffee supply chain – and acknowledge that we are on the same journey,” Mark adds.

As part of the scheme, applicants are invited to share their efforts in contributing to and promoting a circular economy. A panel of expert judges will select one roaster or coffee shop and award them either US $5,000 in cash or US $15,000 in credit to spend on MTPak Coffee products, including coffee bags and takeaway cups.

How can you apply?

In order to apply, you need to meet certain criteria:

  • You own a coffee roastery or coffee shop.
  • You have been in business for a minimum of 12 months.
  • You are making active efforts to minimise your environmental impact and contribute to a circular economy.
  • Your efforts have had a clear and measurable impact.

The MTPak Coffee Circular Economy Grant application form can be found here. The deadline to apply is 1 July 2023.

A recyclable Typica coffee bag manufactured by MTPak Coffee.

There’s no doubt that in the coming years, sustainability will continue to be a priority for producers, roasters, baristas, and consumers alike. 

However, in order to successfully implement a circular economy model in the coffee industry, it’s clear that we all need to work collectively to drive real change.

Interested in applying for MTPak Coffee’s Circular Economy Grant? Then learn more here and fill out the application form here.

Photo credits: Jordan Montgomery, MTPak Coffee

Perfect Daily Grind

Please note: MTPak Coffee is a sponsor of Perfect Daily Grind.

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